April 18, 2008

Portrait: Luis Villa, from Bugzilla to bar association

Author: Bruce Byfield

In 10 years, Luis Villa has seen his career expand side by side with free and open source software (FOSS). Starting as bugmaster at Ximian, one of the companies that shaped GNOME as we know it today, he has been a mid-level manager at Novell, the coordinator of testing with the GNOME project, and a frequent member of the GNOME Foundation Board. More recently, Villa has been a student at Columbia Law School. When he graduates, he hopes to use his knowledge of how FOSS and business interact to benefit both.

PortraitsIn many ways, the outline of Villa's career has been obvious from his college days, when he took a double major in political science and computing. At the time, he had no idea that the two might be connected. "They were just two things I was interested in. I had no idea that the two would overlap."

He first saw GNU/Linux briefly during his freshman year in 1996, when a friend installed it for a week. "Next year, I got really fed up with Windows, and my neighbor helped me install Red Hat 5.0, and I've been using ever since."

Before long, Villa saw the community as a place where his two interests could unite. "I was very curious about the non-technical aspects from day one," he says. "It was obvious to me that the core notion that a bunch of people could get together on the Internet and produce something was really revolutionary. It was just obvious that there was something important that was going on socially and politically."

Villa began doing quality assurance work for Mozilla. He made this choice, he says, largely because it enabled him to make small contributions without dedicating large blocks of time for any one project. By the time he graduated and started looking for work in Fall 2000, he had a modest reputation among friends for his understanding of Bugzilla, the well-known bug-tracking tool.

Ximian days


A couple of Villa's friends were among the early employees of Ximian. At first, Villa had little thought of joining them. "I'm a good programmer, but I'm not a great programmer, and at that time Ximian was only hiring great programmers."

However, he says, "None of them could work Bugzilla to save their lives." When he was offered a position at Ximian, Villa also considered a Silicon Valley position that seemed to offer a fast track to wealth, but he accepted Ximian's offer because "I thought it would be a lot of fun." Four months later, the other company went bankrupt.

Villa joined Ximian at the height of the dot-com bubble. Referring to Ximian's monkey trademark and jungle-theme trade fair booth, Villa says, "We all had monkeys on our desks, and there was stuff like giving away massive piles of monkeys and that booth that were very dot-com. In some sense, we were a wild-eyed, kind of crazy startup, and I have some of the usual stories about living in the office for hours and hours and weeks."

At the same time, Ximian was interacting regularly with established companies who were showing their first tentative interest in FOSS. Because of that interaction, Villa thinks now, "We were pretty grounded. Our regular contact with these big, traditional software companies gave us some perspective that I think a lot of the crazy dot-coms didn't have." Surviving the dot-com crash where others didn't, Ximian continued developing tools like Evolution and Bonobo which have since become major parts of the GNOME core.

GNOME involvement

Ximian's connection with GNOME was obvious from the start. Since Villa was testing core tools, the step from his daily job to volunteering at GNOME was a small one, and he was soon doing similar work as a volunteer in that community.

Villa's GNOME work, he says, was "Almost completely in testing. Other than hacking on Bugzilla itself, I think there's probably one line in GNOME by me. Frankly, I hate C [the programming language]. I have more fun with the social stuff anyway, like working with the volunteers."

The task at GNOME, Villa says, was not getting people to file bugs, "but working to get them to file quality bugs. And getting people to take bugs that aren't quality and turn them into something that developers can really work with." These goals resulted in Villa organizing bug-stomping days, developing guidelines for bug submissions, and rewriting Bugzilla's vague priority system to make it useful for release management -- and then getting people to use the new system.

As he had at Ximian, Villa found that organizing quality assurance lead him to interact with almost everyone else. "The bugmaster works with all parts of the community, so I became very high profile, and I was interested in leadership and the bigger issues beyond the code. My philosophy has always been that coders are the ones doing the important work. Those of us who have other interests and talents should be helping them to get their work done."

To law school

In August 2003, Ximian was acquired by Novell. At first, Villa remembers, "We were all pretty excited. We thought there would be great synergy." However, after 18 months, Villa, unlike many of his fellow employees from Ximian, decided to move on.

At Ximian, he explains, he was used to a flat hierarchy, and being able to be involved with many aspects of a project at once. By contrast, he says, "At Novell, extra levels of management came in, and you had to deal more with sales and marketing. And to a certain extent, it's harder for a person with just a pure engineering background to get ahead. So I decided to really expand my horizon, rather than playing in these pigeonholes.

"That's not Novell's fault," he adds hastily. "I got impatient pretty fast. Mostly, I realized that I didn't want to be a middle engineer and manager."

Just as importantly, Villa was becoming increasingly interested in the legal aspects of FOSS. "It was becoming increasingly clear that open source could not ignore the legal rules, because the legal rules were not going to ignore it. So I became more and more curious, and I was living right across the street from Harvard Law School -- literally -- and that made the choice very easy for me."

Villa remembers talking with Eben Moglen at Linuxconf.au about his growing legal interests. "I cornered him after his talk and said, 'Hey, should I go to law school?' And he said, 'No, no, no, don't go to law school. You'll end up deep in debt, and you'll have to do horrible things. Keep doing the good things you're doing.'"

Stalling, Villa became what he calls "geek in residence" at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard, where he was in charge of organizing the various social projects that faculty developed from their research. His goal, he says, was to find out "whether I could stand being around lawyers all the time."

Finally, Villa chose to follow Moglen's example rather than his advice, and enrolled as a law student. Currently in his second year, he recently became editor-in-chief of the Columbia Science and Technology Law Review. Although the journal has always published all of its content online, "We're not as astute about these things as we would like to be," Villa says. "Whether or not law journals like it, they're going to be impacted by the Internet. So my goal as editor-in-chief is to see what I can do to help my journal and maybe all journals adopt."

The GNOME Foundation Board

Meanwhile, Villa continues to be serve on the GNOME Foundation Board, a position to which he has been elected four times. Just as testing in Ximian led to management, so it led to a leadership position in GNOME, he notes. He says that working with the board usually involves daily interaction with other board members, varying from a few email exchanges to practically full-time work, depending on what he is working on.

As a long-time board member, Villa says that one of the ongoing problems with the board is that many members are torn between their personal preferences and the responsibility of directing GNOME's future. "They don't do as much coding as they liked to -- or whatever they did beforehand -- and, at the same time, they don't necessarily have as much time for board stuff as they always like to."

Another ongoing problem is continuity. "I think we've had a problem in the past that, when we get a new board, sometimes we reset and lose traction for a while." He hopes that the new system of electing the board in July, just before the GNOME Users' and Developers' European Conference -- one of the GNOME community's largest annual events -- will help to reduce the problem by allowing new board members to meet each other face to face.

Unlike many in the FOSS community, Villa does not see the involvement of corporations in GNOME through the Foundation as a problem -- although he admits that, considering his past, he may not be the best judge of the situation. He points out that some aspects promoted by corporate Foundation members, including accessibility and usability, are ones that the hackers of the GNOME community might not have tackled by themselves.

At any rate, the typical company involved in the Foundation already has connections with the project. "I think that if a corporation came in waving a check, it wouldn't get very far. The reality is that these companies have the influence they do more from the code that they write every day than because of any check they give the Foundation. Which is the way it should be. There's a meritocracy."

The result, according to Villa, is that the divisions between community and corporate interests that many fear simply haven't materialized. "I don't think there has ever been a significant one since I've been involved. I think our community is very pragmatic, and that means by and large that everybody understands that we're all on the same page."

Community and corporation

As Villa spoke with Linux.com, he was looking forward to a summer associateship at Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe in Silicon Valley, where he also hopes to work after being called to the bar.

Villa's goal is to continue to act as the bridge between community and corporate cultures that he has been in the past. "I would love to go to a law firm and tell big corporations, 'You know, [FOSS] isn't that scary. This is something you can learn from, that you can profit from, and that you can input into. It doesn't bite -- it snarls sometimes, but it doesn't bite.' And if I can work for a Fortune 500 company someday, and convince them that the GPL is actually something they should use, that's a win for everybody."

Similarly, Villa hopes that his future career will involve explaining business to the community. he says, "There's still people who say, 'Why are lawyers getting into this? Can't they just stay away and let us do our thing? We don't want them here, so why do they want to be here?'

"My response is that open source is a big deal. When you have millions of users, law gets curious. Law wants to get involved. When you're a billion dollar industry -- or, in our case, tens of billions of dollars -- the law's not going to leave you alone. So I want to be involved in part because I think that the more lawyers who understand what it means to be a volunteer, what it means to be part of the community, the better. And lawyers are going to show up because success showed up."

Our Portraits series seeks to profile individuals who are doing interesting things with free and open source software. If you know of someone you'd like to read about, please let us know.

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